Steampunk Book Review: “Warlord of the Air”
I recently learned a totally amazing word. “Vellichor” was invented by John Koenig to mean “the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time…” I am sure many of you have experienced this even if you didn’t have the word for it. I have been away from the United States for a year now, I am definitely in used bookstore withdrawal. I miss going on my little treasure hunts for science fiction and fantasy books, and of course, Steampunk books in particular. It seems an especially apt word for today’s review of a book that is also focused on the passage of time (or in fact, times).
I managed to pick up a yellowing copy of The Warlord of the Air just before I left America, and I have been carting it around from country to country. I finally got a chance to read it on a long day of travel as I was leaving Sofia, Bulgaria and it was well worth the wait. This is the first in Michael Moorcock’s A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, which were published between 1971 and 1981.
The tale is framed as a story that was told to Moorcock’s fictional grandfather of the same name, who recorded Bastable’s adventure while on holiday on a tiny island in 1903. He sees Bastable for the first time when he is forcibly ejected from a ship where he had stowed away, and is left to fend for himself. As much out of boredom as charity, “Moorcock Sr.” takes the stranger under his wing and invites him to come back to his hotel for a meal. After some coaxing, Bastable starts to tell him about his life, and they end up locked in the room for three days while the story is recorded.
At the outset, Bastable is on a peace-keeping mission for the British army in 1902. He and a few other officers are invited into the sacred city of Teku Banga to negotiate with the king who reigned over this millennia-old society. They are led into the labyrinthine Palace of the Future Buddha and drugged by their host. When Bastable realizes the trick, and the others flee the chamber where they are eating with the king, and soon become lost in the tunnels under the palace. Something happens to him in the pitch-blackness and he loses consciousness.
When he awakes, he simply believes that there has been an earthquake, but the truth is far stranger than he could have imagined. The city around him lies in ruins, but this is old destruction and his clothes hang off him in aged tatters. Eventually, he finds out that he was been somehow transported to the year 1973, but no 1973 that you or I might recognize. The British Empire has continued to grow and flourish in the absence of WWI, spreading “civilization” throughout the globe. But as Bastable finds after joining the Airship police, the peace is only surface-deep and in many places terrorists and rebels are trying to throw off the yolk of oppression.
Alternate histories are some of my absolute favorite stories to read, and this one did not disappoint. It was fairly short, but also very insightful, which is an excellent combination. Moorcock has a unique perspective on history, both real and invented, and I definitely recommend that you give his work a try. I recently started reading a new compilation of short stories called The Time Traveler’s Almanac, and I was also thoroughly delighted by Moorcock’s Pale Roses. I look forward to getting back to the States in a few months, where I can resume my hunt for the rest of Moorcock’s books in the series.
Have you ever read anything by Moorcock? What did you think?
Steampunk Book Review: The Poison Belt
One of my all time favorite literary characters is Professor Challenger, who I’m afraid is forever doomed to be overshined by Conan Doyle’s better known protagonist, Sherlock Holmes. Challenger is every bit as smart as Sherlock, but is both more pompous and more energetic than the great detective, and I find myself laughing out loud at his over-the-top confidence and sharp wit on a regular basis while reading.
The Poison belt came out in 1913, and centers on the same cadre of adventurers from the first book. They are having a reunion at Challenger’s country home a few years after their great discovery of the The Lost World. Unfortunately, what is meant to be a lovely weekend is interrupted by nothing less than the end of the world as we know it. It begins with what appears to be an infectios disease, but Professor Challenger riddles out the truth, that aether is to blame.
The prevailing theories during the “steam era” about the medium that makes up our universe all centered on aether. It fills those empty spaces between everything, and influences the effects of light and gravity. During the story our planet passes through a belt of this mysterious substance that is totally antithetical to animal life, and there is no telling how long we will be subject to the effects of the this poison belt. Our heroes watch as one by one the people in the fields, the birds in the sky and the horses pulling carriages all drift into their final rest, while they attempt to prolong their own lives for a few precious hours within an oxegenated environment.
I don’t usually like to give away the endings or twists in the books I review, but it is evident that the human race must somehow survive considering the reader is in fact both human and alive, but while reading the protagonists see no means of escape and spend much of their time reflecting on the meaning of life and human beings’ place in the universe. This may seem a depressing subject matter, but Conan Doyle does a good job of keeping the meloncholy in check and balancing it with the banter of the characters and the giddiness that comes from the aether entering one’s system.
It’s a nice, short little book which is widely available for free download because it is no longer in copyright. The Mister and I read it in a matter of hours and we both really enjoyed it. I can’t wait to read the next Challenger title, The Land of Mist.
Steampunk Short: The Ouroboros Cycle Promo
I ran across this book promo for piece by G. D. Falksen the other day and I am definitely intrigued. The third installment came out in 2015.
Have you ever read anything by this author?
Steampunk Sourcebook: Charles Darwin
- Charles Robert Darwin was born in 1809 in Shropshire, England. He was the fifth born of Robert and Susanna Darwin’s six children. Both his paternal and maternal grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood, respectively, were famous for their abolitionist activities at the end of the 19th century.
- He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh but became fascinated by the non-human world of biological studies. His first animal kingdom of choice to study in detail was marine invertebrates, but he also learned taxidermy from a freed slave named John Edmonstone in his early days at University.
- Darwin was first introduced to the concept of evolution during his tenure with the Plinian Society, a club devoted to natural history at the University of Edinburgh. Darwin became deeply involved after his appointment in 1826, and was later elected to the council.
- He worked for some time at the University museum classifying plants before his neglect of his medical studies annoyed his father so much that papa Darwin sent him to Christ’s College on the road to become an Anglican parson. But rather than steering him away from the natural sciences, Charles found a passion for beetle collecting and met several supporters of Natural Theology. This philosophy is about using reason to understand the nature of God (or the gods) and his/their creations (nature).
- In 1831, at the age of 21, Darwin joined a scientific expedition. It was only meant to last for two years, but in the end it lasted until 1836.
- After some delays, the HMS Beagle embarked from England on December 27. The expedition circumnavigated the globe, and visiting far-off places with diverse ecosystems helped to further Darwin’s theories. He was not the official naturalist on the journey, but maintained a private collection.
- The most well-known part of his journey was his stopover in the Galapagos Islands, but the fossils of extinct giant sloths on the South American mainland did just as much to fuel his new take on evolution theory as the famous finches.
- Important Dates:
- January 6, 1832: The Beagle makes it first stop on Tenerife Island, but the crew is not allowed to disembark because of the fear of cholera.
- January 16, 1832: 23 days in the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of Senegal, which at the time was a French colony.
- February 28, 1832: All Saints Bay, Salvador, Brazil. Darwin and the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, get into a heated argument about abolition after seeing enslaved Africans.
- August 1832: During a survey of the Patagonian coast, Darwin found the fossil remains of huge creature that he could not identify. Experts back in Cambridge found them to be the bones of giant sloths. He also sent several teeth, beetles, and other smaller animals periodically from the expedition.
- December 18, 1832: Darwin has his first encounter with native peoples.
- March 1833: Falkland Islands. This area had only recently come under British control and the Beagle did survey work for the government. Darwin was intrigued by seeing a completely new set of fossils and decided to do comparative studies of all the specimens he had found so far.
- May 1833: Darwin acquires an assistant, Syms Covington. Now that someone else was in charge of stuffing the specimens, Darwin was free to continue his detailed observations.
- November 1833: Darwin spent time on and off the sea for a stretch of a few months and completed overland exploration and fossil collecting. His most compelling discovery was finding the bones of a giant ground sloth that were clearly below a seashell deposit. He was puzzled by how this could be possible, as the movement of the earth’s crust through plate tectonics and the number of times the earth underwent climate change were still unknown to science.
- February 1834: Darwin turns 25, and FitzRoy names the highest peak in the area Mt. Darwin in his honor.
- September 1834: Darwin is ill for several weeks with a fever. He stays at the home of a former classmate in Valapairiso, Chile.
- February 20, 1835: A massive earthquake hits the region where Darwin’s group is studying and after investigating the island of Quiriquina he found that several land masses moved inches or even feet during the quake. This supported the theories of Charles Lyell, whose work was an important point of debate at the Plinian Society.
- July 19, 1835: The Beagle takes on provisions in Lima, Peru, to get ready to cross the Pacific Ocean.
- September 15, 1835: The Galapagos Archipelago is sighted.
- November 15, 1835: The Beagle arrives in Tahiti.
- December 21, 1835: Arrival in New Zealand.
- January 12, 1836: Arrival in Australia.
- February 5, 1836: Arrival in Tasmania.
- April 1, 1836: Arrival in the Cocos Islands, Indian Ocean.
- May 31, 1836: The Beagle sails around the tip of Africa and anchors in Simon’s Bay.
- August 6, 1836: After years at sea, the Beagle finally sets it sights on England.
- October 2, 1836: The ship arrives in Britain and Darwin heads directly for home after four years, nine months and five days.
- Darwin published his first book, widely known as The Voyage of the Beagle, in 1839.
Competing Theories of Evolution
- Transmutation/Transformism: It got its name from clchemy and the attempts to change a base metal into gold. It was first introduced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in his book Philosophie Zoologique (1809). In this theory, it was believed that “nervous fluid” drove organisms to greater and greater complexity. The idea that later generations could inherit the traits of their ancestors was also important, but focused more on individual change than any sort of larger, species-wide shifts.
- Eugenics: The word arose in 1883, but the idea of improving the human race through controlling our breeding and research on the topic started much earlier in the 1800s. For instance, the castration of lunatics and criminals in order to keep them from passing on their unsavory traits was advocated for long before Darwin’s theories were published, but it was Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who first coined the phrase. It gained popularity during the early 1900s, but lost favor after it was used by Ernst Rudin to justify the Nazi’s racial politics. Nevertheless, several countries adopted eugenics policies, starting with the United States in the early 1900s and ending with Switzerland in 1975.
- Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation: This book was published anonymously in 1844. It applies the theory of transmutation to all things, including the solar system. It concluded that Caucasian people were the pinnacle of creation, and that God’s direct intervention was not necessary for species to change. Darwin would later regard it as the work that made people open to his theories. Prince Albert is said to have read it to Queen Victoria to get her up to speed with scientific knowledge. After his death in 1871, Scottish publisher Robert Chambers was revealed to be the author.
- On the Origin of Species: Darwin had planned to release his treatise after his death, but he got word from Lyell that another Naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, was about to publish similar theories. Wallace was actually the one to accurately describe natural selection, and sent Darwin a short paper on the subject in 1858. Their theories were presented jointly at a Linnean Society meeting but did not receive the attention that was expected. Darwin could not attend due to the death of his young son by scarlet fever. His book was completed and published November of 1859. By the end of the 1860s, most scientists were in agreement that evolution had taken place, but there was no agreement as to the mechanism. The majority still believed that God was behind it, not natural selection.
References in Steampunk Literature
- In The Strange Affair of Spring-heeled Jack (2010) by Mark Hodder, Charles Darwin is the villainous force behind a mysterious plot in an alternate timeline where Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840. In the world Hodder created, the Technologists and Eugenicists (with Darwin as their leader) are at war.
- In the Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfield, Darwin not only discovered the forces behind evolution, but also its building blocks, DNA. In this alternate version of events, The Darwinists use genetics to creating living weapons in their war with the “Clankers,” who use technology.
- If you like graphic novels, you can follow Edgar Allan Poe, Abe Lincoln, and Charles Darwin as three children with incredible destinies who find themselves kidnapped by a dimension-traveling cowboy in Charlie Darwin or the Trine of 1809. Hurried away to meet the Princess of Avalon – they discover just how extraordinary the world really is!
- Many books use references to Darwin as a way to situate their stories in time. For instance, his name is mentioned in The Difference Engine as being among the new privileged class of intellectuals collectively called “savants.”
Steampunk Book Review: Clockwork Princess (Infernal Devices 3)
Even though all three of Casandra Clare’s Infernal Devices books came out between 2009-2013, I didn’t get around to reading the third one until now. This is not to say that I wasn’t excited to find out the conclusion, but I didn’t get a chance to pick it up before I left the English-speaking world for a spell. You can imagine my elation when I found an ample English language section in a local Sofia, Bulgaria bookstore the other day and Clockwork Princess was waiting for me! Even though it comes in at 507 pages, I tore right through it in a couple of days. It is a totally satisfying wrapping-up of the plot lines from the first two books.
The book begins with a confrontation between the London Institute and the giant worm demon that Benedict Lightwood has become due to his affliction with “demon pox.” His sons, Gabriel and Gideon, as well as Will’s shadowhunter-in-training sister, Cecily, accompany Will, Jem and Tessa to the Lightwood estate. In the interim since events of Clockwork Prince came to a close, the Magister and his automaton army seem to have vanished, leaving little for Will to focus on besides the engagement of his best friend, Jem, to the love of his life, Tessa. The battle is a welcome distraction until at the end when Jem collapses due to his long-standing illness.
It turns out he has been taking his drugs far too quickly in an attempt to be worthy of Tessa’s love, and he has burned out his entire year’s supply in a matter of weeks. The Magister has bought up all of the remaining drug in the entire city, leaving the shadowhunters at his mercy if they want Jem to live. Tessa is the key to the Magister’s nefarious plot for domination over the shadowhunters he believed have wronged him, but her actual purpose is still a mystery. On top of the threat from the outside, trouble is also brewing for the head of the London Institute, who didn’t turn out to be as compliant and meek as the Consul believed she would be. Internal politics, passionate romance and the threat of utter annihilation combine into a great climax for a wonderful trilogy.
Clockwork Angel Review (Infernal Devices 1)
Clockwork Prince Review (Infernal Devices 2)
The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) is an 80s-tastic way to Learn About this Great American Writer
I was born in the 1980s, but a little too late to really remember its pitfalls (like huge hair and shoulder pads) or its triumphs (the advent of the music video, and of course, Steampunk) first hand. Luckily for us, this was a time when tons of weird, wonderful and sometimes experimental television and movies were being made, which captured some of the essence of that era. The 1970s and 80s saw a revival of a film technique that was pioneered by Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company in 1908: clay-animation. You can see their film, A Sculptor’s Nightmare, here.
The very first stop-motion film of all time, which employed moving toys, was made in 1897. Samuel Langhorn Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, lived until 1910, so it is entirely possible that he saw the first clay-animation film and probable that he saw earlier stop-motion films as well.
The Adventures of Mark Twain was made in 1985 and is a trippy clay-anmation sojourn through the works of Mark Twain. There is a little bit of biographical information, but mostly it is a chance to showcase his contributions to literature. The viewer is swept away along on an airship adventure along with some of Twain’s best-known characters, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. Twain was born near the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1835, and always said he believed he would leave this world again the next time it passed in 1910 (he died the day after it returned), so the film revolves around him trying to keep his “appointment” and visiting some of his greatest works along the way.
Though it may seem morbid that he is racing to his own death, the film is wonderful combination of stunning visuals, abstraction and humor, which totally downplays the seemingly morbid plot line. Though I should warn you that even though this is an animated film, and so you may be thinking it was made for kids, the depiction of “The Mysterious Stranger” is pretty terrifying. Adults would get much more out of this movie than kids, especially if they have read any Twain at all.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, which came out on DVD in 2006. When it was originally released in 1985 it had a very limited run, so I wouldn’t be surprised if few people even knows it exists.
Steampunk Sourcebook: Jules Verne
Fun Facts and Context
- Jules Gabriel Verne was born on Feb. 8, 1828 and died from complications of diabetes on Mar. 24 1905.
- He was on track to become a lawyer when he started writing articles and fiction for magazines, as well as penning plays.
- In the English speaking world he was regarded as a children’s writer during his lifetime, probably because of the popularity of his genre fiction, which was often abridged when translated. Nowadays of course he is considered one of the “fathers of science fiction,” along with H. G. Wells. As far as I could find, the two of them never met in person, which isn’t too surprising consider their age gap (Verne was 38 years old when Wells was born).
- Verne’s imagination was captured by travel and the trope of the “castaway” early in his life. As a child, he had a teacher whose husband had been lost at sea and believed he would some day be found living life like Robinson Crusoe (published 1719). He often stranded his characters on islands during their adventures, such as in In Search of Castaways (1867-1868), The Mysterious Island (1874), and Two Years’ Vacation (1888).
- Verne made lots of famous friends during his lifetime. His close relationship to Alexandre Dumas Jr. and Sr. helped him as a playwright early in his career. He was also a buddy of the noted French explorer and geographer Jacques Arago whose accounts of his travels around the globe helped to lead Verne to his path as a travel writer.
- He fell in love with Honorine de Viane Morel, the sister-in-law of a good friend, in 1856. In order to provide enough financial security to marry her, he went into finance. But there was no way Verne was going to totally abandon his first love, his literary career. He woke early in the morning to write before heading to the office.
- Two years later, at the age of 30, Verne got his first chance to leave France. That year he traveled to the British Isles, and upon returning to Paris he wrote a semi-biographical novel called Backwards to Britain, but it was not published until 1989. In 1861 he visited Sweden, Norway and Denmark and missed the birth of his son, Michel the same year. After he found literary success, he purchased a succession of larger and larger vessels which he used to travel all around Europe.
- Unfortunately traveling became difficult for Verne after an incident in 1886. His nephew, Gaston, suffered from paranoia and shot his uncle in the leg (or foot, depending on the account) and Verne never fully recovered. Luckily for his fans, this did not stop him from continuing to write sometimes two novels a year.
- According to one article I found, there is a lot of evidence the Verne plagiarized large portions his most well-known work, Journey to the Center of the Earth. He was sued by Leon Delmas in 1863, and the court case was not resolved until 1874.
- With the help of Verne’s son, some of his books were published posthumously.
- Several of Verne’s manuscripts and plays were found in a safe 1989, so have only recently seen the light of day. Among these was a novel called Paris in the Twentieth Century, which was initially rejected by Verne’s publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, because of its pessimistic view of the future. The story is set in a dystopian 1960 (97 years after it was written), and predicted the invention of many things that ended up being absolutely correct such as gas-powered cars, fax machines, elevators and sky scrapers.
Verne’s most note-worthy works
I’ve been writing about Verne off and on since I started this website, so I won’t reproduce all of my reviews and info again verbatim.. Here are links to those articles:
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Steampunk Sourcebook: Captain Nemo
Around the World in 80 Days book review, Steampunk Sourcebook and review of the Steampunk reinterpretation The Other Log of Phileas Fogg.
Journey to the Center of the Earth book and 2008 movie
The Mysterious Island movies in 2005, 2012 and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island 2012, which actually served as a sequel to the Journey to the Center of the Earth film. I have not yet read the book myself, but plan to some time in the future and will add a link then 🙂
Are you a fan of Jules Verne? What’s your favorite book?
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) Tries Too Hard
We Steampunk fans enjoy a nice mash-up of literary references like in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it takes an exceptional writer to make it all fit together in a coherent narrative. Unfortunately, this sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth shoe horns this notion between overwrought action and family drama in a pretty unsatisfactory way.
A few years have passed since the events of the first film, and Sean (Josh Hutcherson) has a new stepfather, Hank (Dwayne Johnson). His relationship with the former Navy code breaker is rocky, but when Hank helps Sean decipher a message from his wayward grandfather (Michael Caine) they find some common ground. The message reveals that the island in Verne’s novel is not only real, but is the same island described in Treasure Island and Gulliver’s Travels, and resides somewhere off the coast of the Philippines. (I actually winced when Hank rips the map pages out of the three books in order to fit them into a single island. Have some respect, dude!)
Once they reach Palau, they find that the only people willing to take them to their coordinates (which turn out to be caught in a perpetual hurricane) are a helicopter pilot (Luis Guzman) and his daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). The four of them crash land on a lush island populated by giant insects and Lilliputian pachyderms, and must fend off a dinosaur-scale iguana within minutes of landing. After a brief respite at grandpa’s house, they journey into the jungle past a volcano spouting gold (a reference to the mountain of gold in Treasure Island), see the remnants of the lost city of Atlantis that Verne described in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and discover that the island is rapidly sinking once again. Without any means of contacting the outside world during the storm, their only hope is Nemo’s Nautilus, which is still hidden somewhere on the island.
Okay, so you know how I like crappy movies? Even I had some trouble with this one. The action is overblown and basically unending and the dialog was hit and miss. I almost stopped watching the film completely when I got to a scene which centered on “The Rock” popping his pectorals and saying it was the best way to get women. GAG! Also, the “science” didn’t really work. For instance, I am willing to play along with their use of island dwarfism/gigantism, especially as the much-lauded 1961 Mysterious Island features giant critters as well, but if the island is trapped in a perpetual storm and periodically sinks to the depths of the ocean, where did the animals even come from???
It’s pretty much only worth a viewing if you like making snarky comments about what you are watching (which is a regular pastime in the Darqueling household) and can take it all with a grain of salt. Also, the effects are pretty awesome so the visuals are cool. But if you are looking for a good story that has much of anything to do with Verne’s book, skip it.